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Jerry Arnold, Buckhannon's Director of Public Works

Upshur County Commission rejects one city-county partnership proposal, but approves another

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Commission decided not to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to help pay for the Tennerton water storage tank rehabilitation project proposed by the City of Buckhannon.

The Upshur County Commission convened April 21 to evaluate proposed projects to be funded using the money from the federal government. The county received a total of $4.7 million in ARPA funds, and the commission had previously approved several projects totaling $1.7 million, leaving about $3 million still to be allocated.

Two of the proposed projects were put forth by the City of Buckhannon as partnerships — the Tennerton water tank rehabilitation project and funding for a live fire training facility. The city had asked the commission to split the cost of the water tank project, with both entities providing $150,250 — which was rejected — and to chip in $60,000 for fire training — which the county approved.

Upshur County Commissioner Terry Cutright said he was not in favor of the water tower project, suggesting the city should have increased water rates to pay for the upgrade.

“I have a problem funding this water tank,” Cutright said, asking city representatives why the water department did not hike its prices in anticipation of projects like the water tank rehabilitation.

“When you figure what you’re going to charge the Adrian customers, do you figure what the replacement of that tank is going to be in their charge each month in 10 years?” the former furniture salesman asked. “In my business, when I priced the living room suit, I knew that somewhere along the line I’m going to have put a roof on my building, I was going to have to buy new delivery trucks, I was going to have to paint the walls inside, so all of that figured into my price. Then I had the funds to be able to do that. You don’t do that with the water company?”

Buckhannon’s Director of Public Works Jerry Arnold said the water department does plan for regular upkeep of equipment, but this project goes beyond what is typically allocated. The city sells water to the public service districts, which then resell that to their customers in the county. Arnold noted that the Buckhannon water department tries to keep things equal between the PSDs, but the added cost of serving county residents — rather than just city ratepayers– is significant.

“This is beyond those operating costs,” Arnold said. “Whenever you’re looking at rates, you’re trying to keep that even and as level as you can for your municipal customers, and that’s what we did this last time with our rates. We were trying to adjust a little more for the Public Service Districts to pay their fair share of the increased costs, because let’s face it, if we had to treat water just for the city residents, we would not have a Class IV plant, which drops the costs of employment, and we wouldn’t have to provide or have that particular tank up there. This is a direct benefit for more than just city customers.”

City Engineer Jay Hollen said the tanks are inspected every five years, and the city was trying to resolve issues with the Tennerton tank before they became a serious problem for customers in that part of the county.

“We are required by law to inspect the tank every five years and we’ve been doing that very regularly since I’ve come on board,” Hollen said. “The last report was that the inside needs to be looked at or else we’re going to have to take more drastic measures, so we’re getting in front of it.”

City Recorder Randy Sanders said the city must work with the Public Service Commission to set rates, and they cannot make a profit as a service organization.

“We’re trying to keep [rates] as low as we can,” Sanders told the commission. “We realize the PSDs have to function, have to operate, and they’re offering a vital service out there in the county, so we’re trying to keep it as low as we can without putting all the burden on top of our city customers’ backs.”

Sanders said the project was meant to be a good opportunity for the city and county to work together on something that benefits residents living in both political divisions.

“This is a good project for the community,” Sanders said. “It’s not the city versus the county. This is a great project that we can work together on with the federal funding that was provided to us.”

However, Cutright felt the city could get back its investment by raising rates, and the county should too. He said he would support the project if the city agreed to repay the money as they recouped it from county customers.

“You work out an amortization or a payment plan over 10 years and send us our cut of the money for the water that goes through that for the next 10 years — until we get our $150,000 back, like you’re going to get your $150,000 back,” Cutright said.

Buckhannon Mayor Robbie Skinner said he didn’t know if that plan would even be possible using ARPA funds. He pointed to the difference between a for-profit business raising prices and a non-profit utility.

“We wouldn’t even be in this room having a discussion about ARPA funds if every single county and every single municipality across the state were not having infrastructure problems,” Skinner said. “I just went to a North Central West Virginia mayor’s meeting with Congressman [David] McKinley on Tuesday, and every single mayor in the room — from Weirton to Webster Springs and everywhere in between — was talking about the need to upgrade and to fix the infrastructure in the ground. We do the best we can, but we are not a for-profit business. We can’t make a profit, we’re not allowed, we are a service organization.”

He said the PSC is unlikely to approve a rate increase like the one proposed by Cutright.

“It’s easier said than done,” he said. “We go to them, and they still knock us down every time we go for a rate increase … It takes legislative change at the capitol to make any sort of change happen with the hierarchy of the Public Service Commission, which governs all utilities in the state.”

Upshur County Commission president Kristie Tenney noted the county cannot afford to pay for all the projects that requested federal funds.

“I think we need to keep that in mind when we say yes to one thing, we’re saying no to something else,” Tenney said. “I wish we could fund every single thing and help, for instance, the airport, which is helping everybody. If we say yes to this, we’re going to have to say no to something else.”

Commissioner Sam Nolte said he first learned of the federal funding, he was excited about the good the money could do but also worried about divisions it could cause.

“We want to help out as many people as we can,” Nolte said, noting that the city also received ARPA funds. “You guys got money to the tune of $2.3 million — you were not expecting the $2.3 million, just like we weren’t expecting the $4.6 million.”

Ultimately, Tenney concluded the conversation by saying the commission would not fund the water tank but wanted to help with the live fire training facility.

“At this time, we’ll pause on that unless we come to the end here and we find it somewhere else,” she said of the water tank. “We’ll move on to the training facility. I personally think that that’s a good opportunity for our fire departments to be able to all utilize that facility, and I know after speaking to Chief [JB] Kimble, they’re all able to utilize that facility free of charge.”

The commissioners approved allocating $60,000 for the training facility.

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